Monday, July 13, 2015

Pre-teen boys hide out in a 19th Century reform school

Aiden Sullivan and Charles Wheeler are 11 and 12 years old in Boston in 1889. Aiden, nominally Catholic, nominally Irish, has no father and a consumptive, dying mother. Charles, an orphan who has already done time for stealing a sandwich, is living by his considerable wits on the streets. They connect early and plausibly in Connie Hertzberg Mayo's fascinating new novel, The Island of Worthy Boys.

Mayo shows the boys' daily scramble to make enough money for food and, in Aiden's case, for rent to keep a tenament roof over his mother and little sister. Desperation finally pushes the boys into rolling drunken sailors on the waterfront, which works until it doesn't. One night, the drunk grabs Charles who has just opened the man's pocket knife, and, in horrible accident, plunges the knife into the man's gut. Worse, a woman happens out of an alley door, spots the boys, and cries havoc. Charles and Aiden now have to get out of Boston, but where?

With the connivance of a friendly whore and an accommodating minister, the boys pass themselves off as orphan brothers and are sent to the Boston Farm School on an island in Boston Harbor. That the school's policy not to accept boys with any kind of criminal record, which Charles has; that there is rampant anti-Irish feeling in Boston in the period, which means Aiden has to watch his accent; and that the school promotes a heavy Protestant Christian ethos to boys guilty of murder makes the island a refuge filled with tripwires.

At the same time, the school offers school, work, shelter, and regular meals. The book's middle section book dramatizes Aiden's and Charles's adjustment to school life as the reader knows this idyll is too good to last. As it is.

The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor was a real institution, and Charles Bradley, the superintendent of the school in the book, was in fact the superintendent from 1888 to 1922; his wife Mary was the school's matron. The school was finally closed in 1975.

Mayo has taken the basic factual information about the school and 1889 Boston society to create two engaging 12-year-olds in Aiden and Charles. The novel works so well I think because Mayo is able to evoke the times, the society, and the thought processes of the characters. We see the world through the eyes of Charles, Aiden, and Superintendent Bradley; they are all different, and they are all convincing, given who they are and what they want.

Although the two protagonists of The Island of Worthy Boys are pre-teen, which tends to cast a novel into the YA genre, I believe this is a book adults and young adults can find rewarding. Young people will be interested how Aiden and Charles fill their days in Boston, scrounging for pennies, and at the school, adjusting to life with 98 other boys. Adult readers will be interested in Mayo's evocation of 19th century assumptions about child raising, the era of "As the twig is bent, the tree will grow." Bradley turns out to be an unusually enlightened and kind reform school superintendent. I finished the book pleased and satisfied, and, perhaps more importantly, convinced that the lives Mayo has realized could have truly lived while the drama of their story carried me along.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"The Stranger" from an Arab point of view

Albert Camus's The Stranger (in the Matthew Ward translation) begins: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don't know."

Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation (in John Cullen's translation) begins: "Mama's still alive today. She doesn't say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I've rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can't remember it anymore."

Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for Algeria's third-largest French-language newspaper. His novel is a tour-de-force, has won a number of prizes, is being translated around the world, and will be the basis of a 2017 film.

Meursault is the name of Camus's narrator, a pied noir who seems to be without ambition, motivation, or inner life. When his boss in Algiers offers a bigger job, an opportunity to live in Paris and travel, he turns him down. "I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't dissatisfied with mine her at all." That evening when Marie, the woman with whom he's been having sex, asks if he wants to marry her, "I said it didn't make any difference to
me and that we could if she wanted to." In the middle of the book, almost carelessly, Meursault shoots an anonymous Arab on the beach, then fires four more bullets into his body. The Arab is a stranger, and Meursault feels no more remorse for the killing than love for Marie or enthusiasm for his job.

Daoud's brilliant idea was to tell the story of the murder from the point of view of the dead Arab's  brother, who was a child at the time. He's now an old man, sitting in an Oran bar, talking to an unidentified and silent interlocutor, hashing and rehashing the murder. He gives the victim a name, Musa, and talks about the effect on himself and his mother, his anger at the unnamed author who wrote a book about Meursault, colonialism, his involvement (or not) in the Algerian revolution, his own murder of a pied noir, his failed relationship with a woman. I believe a case could be made that Daoud's narrator is a mirror image of Meursault. Except that this narrator is more engaged:

"I squeezed the trigger and fired twice. Two bullets. On in the belly, and the other in the necs. That makes seven all told, I thought at once, absurdly. (But the first five, the ones that killed Musa, had been fired twenty years earlier . . .)"

He, like Meursault, has interesting observations about life: "To tell the truth, love is a heavenly beast that scares the hell out of me. I watch it devour people, two by two; it fascinates them with the lure of eternity, shuts them up in a sort of cocoon, lifts them up to heaven, and then drops their carcasses back to earth like peels. Have you seen what becomes of people when they split up? They're scratches on a closed door."

One does not have to have read The Stranger to be fascinated and engaged by Daoud's narrator but reading it, then The Meursault Investigation can make the experiences seriously richer. I was skeptical about an unknown writer taking off on the Nobel Prize-winning Camus, but Kamel Daoud's novel, while offering its own rewards, can stand with Camus's. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Midwest Book Review likes "Girl"

The Midwest Book Review has posted their staff's response to my novel:

"The Girl in the Photo" by Wally Wood is a compelling novel about love and longing, regret and renewal. David and Abbie are a brother and sister who discover a surprising secret after the death of their father in the form of a photo of a young woman who was his lover decades before and half a world away. Even as they mourn their father, an eminent surgeon, David and Abbie question what they thought they knew about his life (and theirs) as they struggle with conflicting memories, unexpected emotions, and new possibilities.

A deftly crafted work of literary fiction, "The Girl in the Photo" is an inherently fascinating and deftly crafted read from beginning to end. Strongly recommended for community library General Fiction collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "The Girl in the Photo" is also available in a Kindle edition ($2.99).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Should you translate everything? Or what?

For my own education and entertainment, I am translating a book of Japanese short stories. Simply deciding on the best English word is a routine challenge. For example, my dictionary often gives several synonyms for a Japanese word. For example, 言い訳する can mean "to make an excuse, to explain, to justify." Those three English words are all similar, but making an excuse is different than explaining or justifying one's action. This means that the translator has to consider the context in which the author has used 言い訳する to begin to approach the Japanese meaning.

In addition to these common decisions, I'm stumbling over what to do about a Japanese word for which there is no English equivalent. At one point, the wife is preparing a bento box lunch for her husband to take to work. She asks, "Do you also want natto?" 

Natto on a bed of rice
I am going to assume that enough Americans have eaten in Japanese restaurants so that they know what a bento box is. But what about natto? How many people who have not been to Japan have tried natto? According to Wikipedia, it's "a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto. Some eat it as a breakfast food. Nattō may be an acquired taste because of its powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture." There is, as far as I know (and I like natto), nothing like it in the West, so what is a translator to do?

You don't want to send your reader to Wikipedia in the middle of the story. You don't want to translate the wife's simple question as, "Do you also want soybeans fermented with bacillus subtilis?" 

My solution, which I am not happy with, is to footnote the word: "Fermented soy beans in a sticky web." If this were a book, another answer is to include a glossary at the back. A third approach is to avoid the word entirely and omit the wife's question or have her ask, "Do you also want something on the side?" I'm not happy with any of these and I'd be interested in other thoughts. If you have an opinion, I'd be delighted to hear it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What it's like to be psychotic

Elyn R. Saks knows what it's like to be psychotic and she wrote about it vividly in her 2007 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Her schizophrenia blossomed in her late teens and for twenty years she lived her life on two paths. On one, she was a high-achieving student, teacher, legal scholar, and tenured professor; a graduate of Vanderbilt University, Oxford University, and the Yale School of Law.

On the other path, she was a crazy woman, unable to distinguish delusion from reality, terrified by the voices in her head, babbling nonsense. What makes the book extraordinary is that Saks is able to show the reader what it's like to have a mind one cannot trust: "For some reason," she writes late in the book, "I decided that Kaplan [her psychoanalyst with whom she'd been working for years] and Steve [her oldest and closest friend] were imposters. They looked the same, they sounded the same, they were identical in every way to the originals—but they'd been replaced, by someone or something. Was it the work of alien beings? I had no way of knowing, but I was terrified."

Notice that in her psychosis she doesn't—she can't—question the reality of this switch. The two people closest to her have been replaced, and so she can no longer trust anything they say or do. No logic, no evidence will convince her otherwise. In this situation, psychoanalysis, the talking cure, is no help.

Fortunately there are drugs. Unfortunately the drug have side effects (although apparently pharmaceutical companies continue to improve the effectiveness and reduce the side effects). For years, however, Saks was convinced against all evidence to the contrary that she could control the voices in her head if she just tried harder. She was profoundly afraid of the drugs, both for the genuine harm they could do over time and because she would not admit she had a genuine disease that required drugs to ameliorate. She repeatedly took antipsychotic medication, felt better, and tried to taper off because she felt better and became an unwashed, babbling, terrified crazy lady.

The Center Cannot Hold is so powerful in places where Saks is almost entirely out of control, I wondered how she was able to write the book at all. This must be what it was like to have delusional thoughts about your therapist, who is only kind and helpful: "She is evil and she is dangerous. She keeps killing me. She is a monster. I must kill her, or threaten her, to stop her from doing evil things to me. It will be a blessing for all the other people she is hurting."

Because Saks is now a psychoanalyst herself, and because she has always been a high achiever when she could function, her memoir is both a personal story, which is fascinating, and a report on how people with mental health problems were treated in the 1980s and 90s, which is sobering. (One can only hope that the situation in American mental hospitals has changed.) She points out a classic bind for psychiatric patients: "They're struggling with thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or others, and at the same time, they desperately need the help of those they're threatening to harm. The conundrum: Say what's on your mind and there'll be consequences; struggle to keep the delusions to yourself, and it's likely you won't get the help you need."

Saks was lucky. She managed to get the help she needed, and she's written a powerful book about a pernicious disease.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The American girl who gave Japanese women their rights

The Last Boat to Yokohama: The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon by Nassrine Azimi and Michel Wasserman is a fascinating small book about an extraordinary woman. It includes an introduction by Gordon herself and an afterward by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who writes "It is a rare life treat for a Supreme Court Justice to get to meet a framer of a Constitution." In 1946 Gordon, 22 years old and a member of General Douglas MacArthur's Occupation staff, helped write the Japanese Constitution.

Gordon's father was Leo Sirota, an internationally famous concert pianist, born in Ukraine, a 1908 graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A successful concert tour in Japan in the late 1920s led to Leo moving his wife and six-year-old Beate (Bay-AH-tay) to Japan permanently in 1929. By the time she graduated from Tokyo's American high school in 1939, she was fluent in Japanese, English, German, French, Russian, and Spanish. Given the international situation, college in neither Japan nor Europe seemed like a good idea and so she entered Mills College in Oakland, California.

Although her mother wanted to stay in the United States at the end of a visit to Beate in late 1941, her father insisted Japan would never attack such a big country and in November they took the last boat to Yokohama. While their lives did not change much during the first couple years of the war, by the last year, they were living in an unheated summer home in Karuizawa and bartering clothing for food and fuel.

Beate monitored Tokyo radio broadcasts for the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC. In 1944 she joined the Office of War Information as a writer and translator into Japanese of its propaganda broadcasts. In 1945 she moved to New York City to become an editorial researcher for Time magazine. When the war ended, and she received word that her parents were alive, she was able to join the Government Section of the General Headquartrs, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and return to Tokyo.

It was clear to the Occupation powers that Japan needed a new Constitution, one that would put it on a road to democracy. After two unsatisfactory attempts by the Japanese, MacArthur gave his staff nine days to write something acceptable. Beate, the only woman in the room (the title of her autobiography), contributed Article 24:

"Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce, and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."

While there have been attempts to amend the Japanese Constitution since it was promulgated in 1946, they have all failed. And women, who were expected to walk three steps behind their husbands, now walk with equal rights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

David Rothenberg's remarkable fortune

Fortune in My Eyes
David Rothenberg's friend and literary agent told him, "Stop telling those stories and write them down." The result is Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion, and while the writing is workmanlike rather than sparkling (he tends to name-drop) the life and observations more than make up for the prose.

A New Jersey boy who fled to New York City as soon as he could, Rothenberg began his work life as a Broadway publicist and producer. That life exposed him to the talented and glamorous. For example, at a small London dinner party he attended as the young protege of producer Alex Cohen, the guests included Ingrid Bergman, her daughter Pia Lindström, Sir John Gielgud, and the actress Joyce Carey.

In 1966, Rothenberg heard about a prison play by a Canadian writer, John Herbert. When he received a copy of the script, "I was up all night, reading and rereading Fortune and Men's Eyes. I was devastated by what I read" and resolved to produce the play off-Broadway himself. When he could not raise enough money, he "committed the cardinal sin of producing" and took out a bank loan to cover the shortfall himself.

While the first reviews were mixed, the play attracted enough business to remain open. A sociology professor asked if he could bring his 30 students and stay to discuss the play with the cast after the final curtain. A note in the program that night invited the entire audience to stay, and during the discussion one member of the audience shouted, "This is a lot of crap. These characters are all stereotypes, and I don't buy any of it."

In response, another man stood to say, "This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell. . ." Rothenberg invited the man, Pat McGarry, who'd done 20 years to join the on-stage panel. McGarry convinced Rothenberg the play "was a mirror for the lives of men whose stories had never been told. Fortune was about the system's destruction of the spirit and how society would pick up the bill at a later date." The play led in almost a straight line to the founding of The Fortune Society in 1967 which helps ex-offenders re-enter society.

So Rothenberg's memoir is much more than an account of his brushes with celebrity. He has profound and interesting things to say about criminal justice in the U.S. He was called into Attica during the horrific 1971 riot that resulted in 39 men dead and hundreds wounded. While many of his heart-warming stories are about men and women who were able to turn their lives around after prison, not all are—just as in real life. For some former prisoners, life on the outside is too stressful.

With his theater contacts, Rothenberg was able to make The Fortune Society happen. Alvin Ailey, one of his friends, joined its advisory council. He offered tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on nights they were not sold out, leading one ex-offender to quip, "When you get out of prison in New York, you get forty dollars, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey."

Midway through the memoir, Rothenberg announces something many readers will have suspected: "I am a homosexual…gay…queer…whatever word is being used this year." Born in 1933, Rothenberg grew up in the time when no one talked openly about homosexuality and "fairy" was a gut-clutching insult. Caught up in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s, he came out to his mother (and includes the moving letter he wrote her) and to the The Fortune Society leadership.

He told his associates, all ex-offenders, he was gay, he was going on The David Susskind Show to announce it, and he was prepared to submit his resignation as the Society's executive director. "This was greeted with a long pause; everyone was looking at one another. Kenny Jackson broke the silence and asked, 'What are you going wear on television?'" Not the response he expected, and when Rothenberg suggested his coming out might affect the Society's support, one of the others said, "You've stood beside us for six years, telling us to be honest about our past lives. Why not give us the same opportunity to stand by you?"

The man has had a fascinating life and his memoir is filled with incident and anecdote. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell what Rothenberg is really like, perhaps because for his first 40 years he had to mask what he was really like and the habit is hard to break. I would like some examples of regret, failure, bad judgment to provide some balance for all the glamor and success. Still, Fortune in My Eyes is well worth your time if only for Rothenberg's experiences with and observations about criminal justice.